I was acutely aware of the volcanic rock formation that made up the road boundary on my right. It was in the periphery of my vision, a blur of blackness almost shining with malevolence. I was terrified. The green P5 felt as controllable as a cigarette paper as the wind whipped up the valley and attempted to throw the bike and its inconsequential rider at the razor slivers that project like blades from the wall. I locked my knees to the top tube, glued my eyes on an imaginary center line on the smooth five-meter wide ribbon of tarmac and hung on tight as the descent got steeper. I couldn’t breathe. My knuckles were white on the tribars. It was too late to move my hands to the hoods, where the brakes are. That would have destabilized the machine even further. The Cervelo accelerated, it’s deep rim front wheel pulling both left and right. The wind was a torrent to which I reacted, always too late, and the bike jumped away from the wall and towards the precipice of tumbling jagged black lava in the valley to my left…
Swim, Bike, and Run
Lanzarote was Plan B. I am an optimist and went to South Africa in April convinced that my planning and preparation were the equal of any fifty-five year old’s and thus I would qualify for Kona 2018 by winning The African Championships. But in a robust rebuttal of my confidence, no, arrogance, fate dealt me a hand that reminded me of the most wonderful aspect of the sport, all good sport: Nothing is certain. I did not qualify in Africa and found myself with unforeseen decisions to take. I could rest, rebuild, peak and perform in mid-Summer by racing in Whistler, Bolton or Maastricht, or I could select a race much closer in time and try to carry the fitness that I had developed for IMSA. Lanzarote was just under five weeks from IMSA, and was a bucket list race that I knew I’d like to do one day. I entered.
Finn Zwager, multiple Kona Qualifier and mine of useful information and helpfulness, found me lodgings and ten days from the race I finally booked flights that would get me to the Canary Islands in about 20 hours from Dubai. Counter-intuitively I ended up flying to London Heathrow and then taking a National Express bus to Luton to catch an Easyjet flight to Arrecife, the capital town on the island of Lanzarote. It was a full day of waiting but proved relatively cost-effective and certainly less stressful than most of the alternatives. Lanzarote is not well served from the Middle East.
My accommodation was perfect. I was on the South side of the Island - forget Club La Santa, the title sponsor, it’s on the wrong, Atlantic side with the wind and the waves - and only ten minutes from the transition. All transport was graciously and efficiently provided by my totally triathlon-oriented hosts. Food was laid on in quantity when and where we needed it. There was a 25m pool at the villa, and a bike room equipped like Wolfi’s, and wise counsel from real local and international experts. Yvonne van Vlerken and two debutants were in the villa so I was in great company. There was even a proper category 1 cyclist who was doing pre-season training in the hills before joining his team in Australia for the winter months. Heaven. Perfect preparation. But I didn’t recce or ride the bike course.
Ironman Lanzarote is ‘old-school’. In a mad frantic mass, sprint starts nearly two thousand insanely fit or ruinously confident individuals dash down the beach and into the clear blue Atlantic ocean. On Saturday the professionals were given only a twenty-meter head start for the two-lap, Aussie-exit swim. They have to smash the first fifty meters or they get swamped by the rampaging age-group elites. This may be the last of the mass starts. I had forgotten just how intensely physical the washing machine can be. I went in with the gold-hatted AWA IM frequent flyers just behind the pros and just in front of the main field. Ouch.
The brawl at the second buoy involved about five hyper-stimulated age-groupers throwing punches and swearing in Irish, English, and Spanish, and about thirty marshals on boards and surf skis shouting liberally, mostly at each other. It was a bit of a muddle but eventually, those of us in the mid-pack emerged on the other side of the melee albeit with, in my case, a really unpleasant dose of gastroc (calf) cramp. I was better off than many. At least one poor sop retired from the race with a broken nose having completed only 170 meters.
The transition was on the beach so I carried some black sand onto the bike in my shoes and my shorts. And then one climbed. Against the wind. Up to something the locals call ‘the goat track’. You’ve got the idea. Going blind into the Ironman Lanzarote bike course was deliberate and a mistake. I knew that I didn’t have time to ride the course, and had I driven it as a recce I would have frightened myself, so I fell back on mindless optimism and the self-confidence of my reputation as a good cyclist. Ouch again. Yvonne had shown me a couple of videos of specific sections that she felt would be critical to her performance. She is probably the best female triathlon cyclist in the world and a voice worth listening to. But iPhone footage flattens and it looked benign enough to me. The roads are a combination of 4k-definition new tarmac interspersed with really poor reception black and white. There were occasional potholes, but most of the track is as good as any in Europe. It is the combination of fearsome wind and repeated inclines that sap one’s courage and legs and adds an hour to most ordinary triathletes bike times.
And it is beautiful. Stop and take a selfie beautiful. I didn’t, I promise, but only because I had no phone. Some of the climbs make you feel like a pro TDF rider. You weave a route to mountaintop clouds up winding narrow track with low walls and incredible drops on both sides, then descend hundreds of meters in terrifying wind blasted seconds. The route is so diverse that drafting would have been pointless and I saw none of it.
Lanzarote is clean, old-fashioned, blood sweat and tears racing
The run is out for ten kilometers, back to ten then twice out for five and back on the same track. By repeating the lumpy part of the run a total of three times they build a real difficulty into the marathon so it is not a fast course. The extra hour on the bike is also expended energy that one might normally have held in credit for the run. Not in Lanzarote.
The hardest Ironman in the World? Until I have done them all I can’t be sure and those who have raced IM Wales might argue, but it is the toughest that I have done, Kona included.
This was a bucket list race for me. I loved it. I can’t be disappointed with my result as I gave it my best shot. I know that I am there or thereabouts but on this day and at this race I was not good enough. I came 5/109. With 40 slots and no roll down I didn’t qualify. Again. There was a German who swam fifteen minutes quicker than me, biked just as well and then ran 3:22 for the Marathon. 10:29 on this course is pretty unbeatable. A Belgian, a Frenchman and a Brit (clearly he didn’t read the brief) showed me my place too. The viagran age-group fields are getting bigger and bigger and faster and faster.
I spent the slow day after the race contemplating learning how to swim properly, wondering how to make my ornamental glutes actually work for me, boxing my bike and looking at Summer potential Kona qualifying races. Ironman Tallinn on August 4th looks interesting. I’ve never been to Estonia. Plan C?
Racing too often
I was advised by some experts not to race another IM so soon after IMSA. Had I been asked by an athlete whether or not he/she should do this I would also have counseled against. But I ignored my own advice and enjoyed the whole training and racing experience again. I don’t know how much chronic fatigue compromised my performance, but I doubt it was enough to catch the Hun. I raced lean at around 5% body fat. Think Marcus (Smith) without the muscle mass. Road maps of veins all on the outside were a result of attempting to carry fitness for longer than usual. On the negative side, I experienced an interesting if faintly worrying phenomenon when twice I found myself falling asleep at the wheel. Now that is strange. I metaphorically wound down the windows and turned up the stereo but narcolepsy when racing? Surely adrenaline should keep this at bay? Now I’m considering going again in less than eight weeks time. My 2018 quest for a slot at Kona is rapidly becoming a sports science experiment; I shall document my performance throughout. At my age, I must accept that there is a chance that I may become unwell or injured, and I will take this into account as I press ‘register’.
I am hugely grateful for the support of my family, and also all my friends, old and new, who made this possible. Luke, Stine, and Chris from optimalTRI and Nick Tipper deserve very special mention but the wider TriDubai community has no equal globally too. We should never underestimate the emotional energy that our relationships provide us on race day. Knowing that those that you love and care about, and who love and care for you, are watching from around the world is the most powerful foundation when Ironman racing inevitably gets ‘uncomfortable’. In all, this was about great people, a great location and a race executed in such a way that I will always carry happy memories of the experience with me.
Thanks also to Pure Sports Nutrition (top nutrition for those who want all racing to be fair and natural), ON Running, Trisouq, Compressport, Oakley and Black Spade Racing for their generosity.
Finally, huge thanks to Debs and Darren Elliott and their bijou set up at Villa Paraiso. I can’t recommend @trisportslanzarote (www.trisportslanzarote.com) enough as a mature, immaculate, family owned and run venue for triathlon camps and Lanzarote races. They offer perfect accommodation; the facilities are faultless. Even Lucy Gossage, triumphant this year, called in post-race (sadly I was not the draw)!
Next stop, the Baltic. (?!!)
David Labouchere - 28 May 2018